Saturday, June 28, 2014

Happy Trails: 32-17

32: Au revoir, Cameroon
Why They Lost: Between Samuel Eto'o holding back, and Alex Song popping off, Cameroon's got no one to blame but themselves. When your biggest pre-tournament warm up is a spat over payment, your priorities are clearly elsewhere.
What We'll Miss: Eto'o's last stand and the chance to see the Indomitable Lions finally live up to the old accomplishments of Roger Milla.

31: Asiabi, Honduras
Why they Lost: Sure, Honduras wasn't very good to start with, but when you combine not being great with playing rough and rumbly at a tournament where breathing on a star the wrong way can get you carded and you've got a recipe for disaster.
What We'll Miss: The chance to point out Honduras as an example of how "tough" futbol can be to the haters in the world.

30: G'day, Australia
Why They Lost: Australia seriously suffered from a lack of ten other Tim Cahills. Ten more Cahills and they might actually have a solid chance at getting a point.
What We'll Miss: Tim Cahill...oh wait, he'll be touring the country with the MLS...then probably just the adorable "Socceroo" love that guy.

29: Sayonara, Japan
Why They Lost: Japan came out of the gates with one heckuva-a-half, taking the lead against a dangerous Ivory Coast team. After that everything came apart, losing to the Elephants, drawing with the Greeks and getting rocked by Colombia.
What We'll Miss: We may not like thunderstix, but man, Japanese fans do a great job of dressing up like crazy people for the world cup.

28: Be Omide Didar, Iran
Why They Lost: The shut down defense that carred Team Melli through the whole of qualification did not desert them when they got to Brazil, frustrating some of the best offenses from around the world until Bosnia finally broke through.
What We'll Miss: Reza Goochanenjad and Alireza Hagighi, both talented on the pitch and posessors of kickass hairdo's

27: Annyong-hi Kashipsho, Korea
Why They Lost: A full season in Europe, a flight across the whole of Asia to train, a flight across the whole Pacific to warm up, a flight to Brazil to compete. Worn down, exhausted, the Taeguk Warriors barely stood a chance.
What We'll Miss: I really do like the nickname Taeguk (Peace) Warriors...if you'd like a new nickname Dan Snyder, I'd suggest that.

26: Cheerio, England
Why they Lost: As cohesive and organized as England can seem, they lack the star power of a truly superlative scorer. Wayne Rooney's strong, but would be less imposing if he didn't have Nike behind him. Daniel Sturridge might be getting there but there's a ways to go. Unless you can find a way to make a Louis Suarezington, or Marvin Balotellingham III, they'll always looked outgunned.
What We'll Miss: The Sun's Apopleptic Headlines. Eternally entertaining.

25: Nante Yie, Ghana
Why They Lost: Players went on strike against playing due to lack of pay on Tuesday, then Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari got in an altercation with a national team official leading to their expulsion and weakening their squad en route to a loss in the critical final match.
What We'll Miss: The Black Stars have always been a favorite of mine. I was torn when they lost to the US and worried when they came close to upending Portugal and stealing second place. I'll still root for Boateng and Muntari, and still root for the Black Stars, especially as more veteran players set up for another run in 4 years.

24: Do Svidanja, Russia
Why The Lost: I might be the world's leading Fabio Capello basher, but seriously, I have yet to see any of the skill that people drool over.
What We'll Miss: Making fun of both Fabio Capello and Vladmir Putin.

23: Adios, Spain
Why They Lost: Vicente Del Bosque knows what works, unfortunately he does not know what ELSE can work. The buddies, the pals, the squad that worked so well for the last three championships is still in place, whether or not it should be is another matter. Certainly, the piss poor showing against Holland and Chile suggests not.
What We'll Miss: Hour after hour of ESPN drooling over a Spanish dynasty and the "genius" of tiki-taka futbol

22: Arrivederci, Italy
Why They Lost: Hubris, thy name is Azzuri. After a sparkling win against England, it looked to be clear sailing against Costa Rica into the second round, instead they were inert and disinterested, doing nothing much of import. The final defeat to Uruguay was another unimpressive result waiting for divine intervention from the referee, only to be left wanting.
What We'll Miss: A couple of drops of blood from Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder.

21: Katora, Cote D'Ivoire
Why They Lost: One last foul. One last foul in the box that lost the draw, lost the point needed to move on and led to Greece (who had played worse than most of the other teams in this list) moving into the next round. They were a minute's a shame, a real shame.
What We'll Miss: The classics: Kalou, the Toures and Drogba, and the newbies: Gervinhio and Wilfried Bony, pretty much all the talent out there

20: Vidimo Se, Bosnia/Herzegovina
Why they Lost: Like Andriy Schevchenko before him, Edin Dzeko is a tremendous scorer who can't do everything. He missed some golden opportunities, but his rivals came no where close to even creating them.
What We'll Miss: Edin Dzeko clearly should be a marked man around the world, it will be a pity to miss out on him doing the same in later rounds.

19: Zbogom, Croatia
Why They Lost: Dejan Lovren's late "penalty" against Brazil seemed to be a stunner, from which Croatia could never quite recover. They were playing from behind the whole time and never got their feat under them.
What We'll Miss: We've never loved Croatia, but we were okay with their takes real men to wear picnic table cloths.

18: Ate Logo, Portugal
Why They Lost: Say what you will about Lionel Messi needing to show up at this tournament, Cristiano Ronaldo was almost nowhere and is rarely anywhere in the World Cups. A great cross to tie the US came after a lackluster 94 minutes, and a final goal to beat Ghana looked more lucky than good. Rely on him too much and you struggle through.
Coming soon to a league near you
What We'll Miss: Women coming to matches--without Ronaldo there's a little less to look at.

17: Ricunacungacama, Ecuador
Why They Lost: Ecuador played tremendously, looking great against Honduras, playing pretty well against France and looking for all the world like they had Switzerland beat. If they hadn't ceded that final second desperation goal, they'd likely have made CONMEBOL, 6 for 6.
What We'll Miss: Enner Valencia is pretty badass, but we're betting we won't have to wait four years to see him on tv again...your move Europe.

Friday, June 27, 2014

3 On/3 Off: The End of the First Round

While I was out of station for most of the last set of matches, I'm as gung ho as anybody for the start of the knockout rounds. But first, let's take a look at the major themes that came out of the last round.

ON: Colonies--For the first time in the World Cup's history three North American teams made the second round. Add to that South America's absurd success in sending 5 of their 6 teams through as well and you have a massive triumph for the Western Hemisphere...because those are extremely rare for us.
OFF: Colonizers--Who were the three most prominent colonizing forces in the America's? Spain, England, and Portugal: a trio with a wealth of soccer clout, experience and power. Who has been eliminated from the competition? Spain, England and Portugal. Who marches on Portugal's Brazil; England's old colonies, and ex-Spanish outposts stretching from Baja to Tierra Del Fuego.

ON: Africa's Old Guard--In 1982 Africa's single biggest stunner in World Cup History hit the coasts of Spain when Algeria knocked off West Germany, only to be denied a deserved spot in the next round by teutonic collusion when Austria and the Germans cock-blocked them. In 1994 and 1998 Nigeria emerged as Africa's first true power by making the knockout stages twice in a row, and while their star faded since then, they've always been lurking.
I really thought two African teams would make it to the next round--but I just assumed it would be the more potent sides: Ivory Coast, Ghana or Cameroon. Instead those teams were undone by a combination of horrific timing and federation/player feuds--if Africa wants to step up to the next level they need to get their houses in order, in the mean time, it's nice to know that someone will step up.
OFF: Asia's Everybody--After tremendous strides over the last decade, Asian Football took a step back in Brazil. The top squads were supposed to be Japan and Korea: bounced without a win and with some pretty ugly play. The worst squads were supposed to be Australia and Iran: proven to be more capable than initially expected, but neither could muster a decisive blow (and poor Iran only managed a consolation goal in their last match).

ON: My beloved Hipsters--Obviously, the big boys Antoine Griezmann and Ahmed Musa were a pair of genuine difference makers who led their teams to the next levels. Mats Hummels, Stefan deVrij, Gary Medel and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado created, delivered and stopped goal opportunities. All while Josip Drmic, Miguel Veloso, Ehsan Haji Safi, Juan Carlos Paredes, Marco Fabian and Atsato Uchida made strong contributions to their teams best showings. If only Boubacar Barry had made that last penalty save we'd have a full squad AND reserves.
OFF: Luis Suarez--Congratulations Luis Suarez, you have become a punchline. You can score all the goals you want, you can dump all over powerful rivals like Italy and England, you can be a national hero defended to the death by your loyal fans, but to the rest of the world, you're a joke. You're a cannibal, a Mike Tyson wannabe who won't ever get to make goofy cameos with Zach Galifinakis, Barcelona won't take you now and Liverpool's ready to cut bait, you can appeal--but who on earth will say "you're right...biting opponents on repeated occasions isn't that serious"? Give it up and go home.

Dream a Little Dream: An Adventure in Trading Cards

I'm a little embarrassed for two separate reasons.

1--As much as I pride myself on writing as much as I possibly can about the World Cup long before the actual trophy gets anywhere near the actual winners, I did not know about the power of Panini World Cup stickers until this year--and this article from the Economist.

2--I'm a grown man...31 years old, and I still get a kick out of wasting my money on trading cards. I know I should be investing in stocks or mutual funds or at the very least in food and clothing. I don't trade the cards, I often forget all about them, I occasionally use them as book marks if the mood strikes. And yet, I buy them anyway, and this year, in honor of the World Cup I bought Panini trading cards as well (same cost as the stickers, but with a little more grown up feel...well..unless you're Mario Balotelli.

After the US' gritty comeback/shameful draw, I needed a pick me up before bed (especially as I would be out of station for the next several days and needed to open them now if I wanted to go to work with a clear conscious. But after a lackluster showing by my baseball card opening (read about that mediocrity here), I decided I needed to do it with a scotch (nothing fancy, just a snort of Glenfidditch).

A quick note, the cards are more complex than the stickers--which just feature players. These have 210 players plus 200 speciality cards--none of which I should assume to get as they tend to appear in 1 of every 7 packs rather than the 2 I bought. Opening the first packet feels like a thrilling new adventure, and kicks off with Kostas Mitroglou of Greece, Robbie Kruse of Australia (if he wasn't injured), and then a fuzzy Stephan Lichseiner of Switzerland, apparently he's a fan favorites, and fans like their players to be extra glossy. An Algerian forward (El Arbi Soudani, who did not get to join in the scoring party against Korea before I opened the pack) follows, then Ezequiel Garay of Argentina and finally Sergio Ramos of Spain.

I notice that the players have numbers at the bottom...I guess these are not just for collectors, but for people who pit cards against eachother in some sort of hybrid: "fantasy football/pokeman" battle. By those standards Ramos is the best card in the pack...though what exactly that means I have no idea...I appreciate the action oriented photography, the simplicity of the design and the depth of each squad, but I'm hoping the last pack has someone I really root for--an American? A Ghanaian, A French/Englishman? Okay alright...anything but Sepp Blatter.

Open the next pack and my prayers are answered: Laurent Koscielny...French...I have no idea who he is...and if there's a drawback to these cards it's that they have no stats or little details on the back. (hmm...Defender who subbed in at the end of their last match...,okay, now I know.)
My first true midfielder in Carlos Pena of Mexico, Yoichiro Kakitani of Japan, Italy's Stephan El Shaarawy (who, like Kruse) was too injured to make the squad this summer), and then...

Ahhh...there it is. Phil Jagielka (whose on an Everton squad I've been encouraged to plump for when the Premiership kicks off again) and the man I mocked at the top of the post...Super Mario himself. Now that IS a satisfying way to end the night of card opening...not least because I'm finishing up my scotch.

I spend a moment or two arranging players as to fill out an 11 man squad--though without a keeper I'm forced to put Robbie Kruse between the posts in a deck chair and hope our opposition is wildly off the mark. The rest of the squad seems to require a 3-2-2-2-1 arrangement with Ramos, Garay an Jagielka in back, Koscielny and Lichsteiner in fullback/defensive mid roles, Pena and Kakitani distributing in midfield, Soudani and Mitroglou running up as forwards and Super Mario as the obvious striker up top.

That's not a squad that breeds a lot of confidence...I doubt they'd do much damage to anyone but Mario Balotelli's fanbase, but it's nice to have a vested interest in a few squads. To cling to Soudani, Pena and Lichtsteiner as players to root for in the final round of matches--and farther if need be (note: I wrote this before the final matches so I obviously could not have known that...well...whatever happened did).

Cards are always my gateway to more knowledge, more nerdiness, more information in bite size nuggets. These cards with their lack of statistics, and inclusion of inactive players don't fit that perfectly, but that's alright, the stars are out, both in the sky and on my table. There's scotch in my bloodstream and hope in my heart. It's not a time to dwell on the missed opportunities of five hours ago, but the missed opportunities to come (though hopefully, those are outnumbered by converted opportunities). For now it's enough to picture the players on the pitch, and let my dreams do the rest.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Waning Seconds: Groups G & H

Let's take a quick glimpse at exactly what must be done for teams to qualify, or, in the case of others not heading in to the last round of matches.

Germany V.s. USA
The Germans and the Yanks are in prime position to qualify, if they just draw with each other they both move on. The conspiracy theorists were in heated supposition within three minutes of Portugal's equalizer, and until the match actually kicks off they'll stay just that tightly wound. It would like take a bit of German support to keep it close as the US will be coming in from the sweltering heat of Manaus on just three days rest after a gutting tie. But if they can just muster a point, they avoid the wait-and-see-hope-for-goal-differential game.

Ghana V.s Portugal
Both the Black Stars and the Portugese need some help from the other match. A slaughter of either side is the only thing to save Portugal's lousy goal differential (though their own victory would be a big help)..the truth is that these evenly matched sides may well play to a draw themselves, but that will be no help at all.

South Korea V.s. Belgium
The Taeguk Warriors have to get a win, and have not looked capable of it. But with Belgium on to the next round, they may be able to spring a surprising result and use that to their advantage. Even if Belgium doesn't rest up for the next round, they've scuffled against both the gritty Algerians and the haphazard Russians, so a win is not out of the question.

Russia V.s. Algeria
Russia HAS to get a win against Algeria, and at the start of the Cup I had predicted that Algeria would knock them out for good with a draw. I didn't think that a draw would be all Les Fennecs needed for a second place finish, but low and behold, that's the case. Whether Fabio Capello rediscovers his master touch, or the Algerians sort out another shock result, it's all up for grabs in the final match of the first round.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Waning Seconds: Groups E & F

Let's take a quick glimpse at exactly what must be done for teams to qualify, or, in the case of others not heading in to the last round of matches.

Argentina V.s. Nigeria
It's firmly established that Lionel Messi is the savior of Argentinian hopes and dreams, but you have to wonder if anyone else can do it. Argentina's booked into the next round but Nigeria isn't...if the Argentine's use the match to rest Messi and warm up his understudies for a 2nd round run, the Super Eagles could spring a surprise (or at least grab a point) and move on as well.

Iran V.s. Bosnia-Herzegovina
The Iranian dream lives on. But it all depends on how they fare against the already ousted Bosnians. Bad luck and missed calls have stymied the debutantes at the cup, but they could easily take this match and spoil the Iranians hopes and dreams...OR...Carlos Quieroz could finally find the cojones to draw up some specific plays for Reza Goochenajad and try to grab the full three points, putting pressure on Nigeria to definitely get the win (as goal differential only barely favors the Africans)

France V.s. Ecuador
Les Blus have looked absolutely dominant for most of their tournament so far...but they are French and it could all slip away in rapid fashion of Ecuador trounces them and Switzerland trounces Honduras. That might take some doing (especially given the sputtering offenses of their rivals) but never bet against the French disaster. Ecuador likely can't be confident in just taking a point as Switzerland has looked far better than Honduras thus far, and La H is already packing it in.

Switzerland V.s. Honduras
With Honduras eliminated they can do one of two things: a) roll over and play dead letting the Swiss steamroll them and head on to the next round, or b) play the same ugly, aggressive, haphazard brand of futbol they've played before, and force the Swiss to sneak a point or two en route to making the next round. Basically, everything's coming up Swiss.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Waning Seconds: Groups C & D

Let's take a quick glimpse at exactly what must be done for teams to qualify, or, in the case of others not heading in to the last round of matches.

Costa Rica V.s. England
Coming into the cup if you had said that one of these teams would be qualified and the other would be mulling whether to prolong their vacation or head home, you'd have heard most Brits agree with you...but it's the Lions heading home and Los Ticos preparing for the next stage. Like Colombia, Costa Rica needs to decide how much to push versus how much to rest, luckily so does England.

Italy V.s. Uruguay
Here's a tantalizing match up. Both teams need points to get the second spot in the group (and could-- with a theoretically large enough margin of victory and a British win over Costa Rica--top the group themselves and avoid Colombia). Italy could be through with a draw but Uruguay won't just let that happen, and since Pirlo has been proficient at picking out strikers on long breaks, bank on the Azurri to let their rivals bring it on, in the hope of springing an attack right after.

Colombia V.s. Japan
Los Cafeteros are already through, but have been in fantastic form, so their question is do they keep the momentum going and build up to the next round, or do they hold back and rest for the pressure to come? That decision will have a major effect on Japan who has been sloppy and floppy in their last three halves of football. They need a win to have any chance at all, and don't look close to getting it from a full strength Colombia.

Cote D'Ivoire V.s. Greece
Les Elephants are on the verge of finally breaking through, finally giving Didier Drogba the knockout round shot he's deserved for 8 years. A draw would be a start--though they can't stand to see a two goal margin in Japan's favor as that would knock them out regardless of their victory over the Samurai, so it's safer to go for victory again. The Greeks are somehow still clinging to life, though they need both a win over the far more organized and energetic Ivorians and a Colombian win/draw against Japan. That's a lofty order, and the only thing lofty about the Greeks at the moment is their age.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Waning Seconds: Groups A & B

Let's take a quick glimpse at exactly what must be done for teams to qualify, or, in the case of others not heading in to the last round of matches.

Netherlands V.s. Chile
This is just a game for positioning as both the Dutch and Chileans are through to the knockout rounds. The question is who will win the group and who will finish second. (There may be different desires based on the morning matches and where Brazil finishes). The Dutch have an inside track on goal differential, so a draw favors them, but Chile doesn't seem terribly impressed with any opponent and given the Oranje's struggles with Australia, La Roja might push up in an attempt to escape rival Brazil and face either the Croats or Mexico.

Spain V.s. Australia--A match for pride, expect the Aussies to go for the points, and Spain to sleepwalk their way hoping they can sit down and rest for a while.


Brazil V.s. Cameroon
Brazil has the benefit of facing the already eliminated Cameroon. They have an even bigger benefit of facing a Cameroon squad that looks very eager to get the heck away from each other as soon as possible. If they get a point they move on, if they get a win, they are likely to win the group.

Croatia V.s. Mexico
This one's for all the marbles. It's win or go home for Croatia, while Mexico can benefit from either a win or a draw (win by enough and they might even unseat Brazil at the top of the group, though that would require strong defense from Cameroon...but there's a first time for everything). The only way both teams go through is if Cameroon beats Brazil....I'm sorry, I'm sorry I thought I could write that with a straight face....couldn't make it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches 30-32

We're through the second set of matches, and it's time again for a few key observations, and some revised predictions.

ON: Jurgen Klinsman "Miracle Worker"--Every move, every sub, every decision he seemed to make was golden. He can't clear the balls (Geoff Cameron) and he can't cut down the lanes on Ronaldo (Michael Bradley) but he has done a fantastic job strategizing the team in a position to win.
OFF: My Mother's Temper--I love my mom, but she has very little patience for passive, defensive, sock it in the back futbol. To her it's the "prevent defense" which prevents you from winning. That's what she blames the loss on, and it's easy to agree (Chris Kluwe went so far as to make that same joke on Twitter). You may know a lot about soccer Jurgen...but, this is America and in America there is one golden rule in soccer coaching: don't irk the moms.

ON: Eden Hazard--Even without scoring the goal himself, Hazard was instrumental in creating and crafting everything positive that came out of the Red Devils side today. The darkhorses haven't been as dominant as some might have predicted, but they're moving on thanks to Hazard.
OFF: Fabio Capello "Genius"--I have seen a fair number of Fabio Capello matches, and read even more that rave about his strategy...I have yet to see the two match up. Russia seems to move forward without any clear central idea and defend out of desperation rather than organization.

ON: Islam Slimani--Like Hazard for Belgium, or Messi for Argentina, Islam Slimani has been the integral part of every single converted attack and triumphant accomplishment for Les Fennecs. Of course, he plays a much lower profile part for Sporting Lisbon rather than amongst the legends of European futbol day in and day Hipsters, you've found your man.
OFF: Jung Sungryong--The Korean keeper had a rough day to be sure, beyond getting blitzed by the oft derided Algerian attack, any stock that he might have seen rise in holding Russia is now utterly'll be back to relative anonymity between the posts for a K-League side soon enough.

Finally some revised predictions:
Before the cup I thought: Cameroon had a solid chance at a surprise berth.
Now? Few teams are as ugly all around as the Indomitable Lions who kicked off with a pay dispute and are set to wrap up their campaign in Brazil with a dispute as to who can play the worst.

Before the cup I thought: Spain would cruise to another finals.
Now? It's hard to see any team crash as hard and fast as La Furia Roja, but the absolute completeness of their debacle is absolutely astonishing. Are we sure nobody pulled an Invasion of the body snatchers on Vicente Del Bosque?

Before the cup I thought: I could make do without a tv.
Now? I've made it through these individual matches without, but as the games run simulcast starting tomorrow...there's danger ahead. (Note, I will be off to a work retreat from Monday evening through Thursday morning, but I will do everything in my power to keep up on the games...I do have daily posts queued up to summarize the multiple ways teams can and can't qualify, but I'm not sure these 3 On/3 Offs will keep up).

3 On/3 Off: Matches 27-29

It was a near perfect day of futbol. Thrilling matches that were extremely close throughout, open thrilling style, and the bright sunshine actually drew me out of my game watching hidy-hole and got me to socialize with other fans in the bright sun. So we'll sneak in an extra substitution, just for fun...

FIRST: ON--Nomad World Pub--I'm proud of my Montanan roots, and my Montanan-isms, and generally all things Montanan, but I'd be hard pressed to find a place like the Nomad World Pub with the live music from around the world, a vast array of domestic and imported beer, a willingness to experiment with different drinks, and a great venue to crowd around with all manner of fans. This is the kind of thing that we need to pull people in to the wonderful world of futbol. Thank you for being awesome Nomad, and thank you for supporting it Minnesota United...spread the word and bring in the people.

ON: Lionel Messi...Argentine Savior--For all the gushing about Argentina's attacking options, it's really been Messi or bust, today it took one of the great strikes of the tournament to get them past Iran and book their ticket for the second round. Let's just go ahead and own it next match Argentina, put ten guys in goal and let Messi do what he does up top.
OFF: Iran Jokes--It's a remarkable thing, but Iran seems to have become the darling of the World Cup, sure they don't do much attacking, and their style of defense is best described as "massive", but we love an underdog. So, getting my haircut, the barbers were intrigued by their style. Hanging out with other fans, even Argentine's were hoping to see a miracle strike groaning with each Goochenajad miss. So, come on Iran, give up your nuclear program and send one guy on loan to the MLS...we'll be your best buds...for a couple months at least.

ON--The Ayew Boys--Abedi Pele is not the Pele you've heard of, but he is the omnipresent legend of Ghanaian football. His sons, Andre and Jordan were tremendous for the Black Stars today in one of the most impressive results in the federation's history. Andre (aka Dede) nodded home the crucial equalizer that put Germany on the back foot, and Jordan's daring runs at the end of the match kept neutral fans entranced even as die hards worried about counterattacks.
OFF--The Boateng Boys--The run up to the match was concerned primarily with the second civil war of Jerome and Kevin-Prince Boateng. Unfortunately that was completely anti-climactic. Niether made good touches, there was little creation or strong passing from either and the game opened up and was far more exciting when they were subbed out at half time. Heck! Kevin even gave Mesut Ozil a better hug than his brother!

ON--Africa--It's been an underwhelming ten days for African sides, but today things turned around clearly and decisively, with Ghana stunning Germany and Nigeria holding off Bosnia. Vincent Enyema's gone so far as to position himself as keeper of the tournament. Whether or not they can get a team (or two...or--in an ideal circumstance--four) through to the next round remains to be seen, but they aren't nearly the pushover one would have thought
OFF--The Baltics--Bosnia had a decisive moment for Edin Dzeko wiped away by a linesman's bad call, but he also missed a parcel of other opportunities en route to the debutantes getting bounced out of the cup. They're not alone, the Croatians are clinging to life in Group A, and the Serbian referee of today's Argetnina-Iran match missed an obvious foul in the box that might have us singing a far different tune about Mr. Messi (or maybe not).

Saturday, June 21, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches 24-26

Half-way home in the first round we've seen some surprising victories, more surprising losses and quite frankly stunning goals. But there can only be three substitutions made each match(day) so let's see who's coming on, and who's heading off.

ON: Jorge Luis Pinto--Costa Rica's coach has done a marvelous job of preparing Los Ticos to play against three of the legends of World Futbol with absolutely no fear. Three decades of coaching experience with minimal success on the world stage has all been wiped away with two thrilling matches and tremendous strategy. If you're an American, you know all about coaching darlings who take a Cinderella deep in the NCAA Tournament en route to a better job...Jorge Luis Pinto is their non-union Costa Rican equivalent.
OFF: Mario Balotelli's Love Life--The Italian striker who spends his down time collecting Panini stickers of himself, and making jokes about getting a smooch from Queen Elizabeth, seemed to have put much more preparation into those gags and not nearly as much into preparing an attack against Costa Rica. Sorry Mario, you and HRH will be a missed connection, yet again.

ON: Everything Karim Benzema Does--He's only on three goals, though he has a case for two more (the rebound off the Honduran keeper which should not be an own goal/the final whistle strike against Switzerland, since you shouldn't whistle dead a match on an attack). Even without the goals, he's been integral to making everything happen for France, the goals, the goals against, the celebrations, the crepes suzette.
OFF: Diego Benaglio--The Swiss Keeper's tepid, depressed showing was utterly exposed by France until his teammates boosted their goal differential by netting two late goals. Worse still, by getting compared constantly with Swiss Cheese, he risks single-handedly tanking the Swiss economy*.

*Note, I know that's not true...but hey, stereotypes are funny...

ON: The Other Valencia--Enner is his name and driving La Tri is his game. As Ecuador strides towards a showdown with France, their chances of a knockout round spot are in doubt, not in doubt is the media's fondness for the Ecuadorian striker who has hurdled to the top spot of teams' summer transfer must have list. A modest proposal: Valencia? He's got your name written all over him.
OFF: The Letter "H"--Honduras' nickname? "La H" A fact the Letter H can't be too happy about right now. For as many bad teams as there have been in the cup (Cameroon and Spain come to mind), Honduras is the only one that combines brutally thuggish defense, with unblinking use of handballs, with zero attacking inspiration. The longer they go, the more Sesame Street must be considering pulling the letter's cushy sponsorship deal.

The second weekend of action seems just as promising as the past week. I'll even be trying to go out and party with real live people (rather than just my pets--who appreciate the companionship but don't care much for the football).

Friday, June 20, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches Twenty-One through Twenty-Three

It's been a week since the cup opener, and we're rapidly approaching make or break time for a squadron of teams. How they fare will depend largely on how they are feeling heading into their final match. With that said, let's look at who's up and who's down after Thursday.

ON: James Rodriguez--For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the absence of Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez has been more than equal to the challenge of representing Colombia and representing them well. Twice Man-of-the-Match, capable of besting one of Europe's top defenses, and flying over the legendary Didier Drogba for another, he's the Visa card of Colombia--every where they wanna be.
OFF: Wilfried Bony--We've been backing Bonny Mr. Bony since last August, believing that he's the future of Ivorian striking. Instead it's been the Gervinho show (though, clearly he's earned it). A Bony threat against the Greeks would go a long way to pushing the Elephants into an energetic, enthusiastic squad worthy of the last 16.

ON: Luis Suarez--The dominant force in Uruguay's great run of results in recent years was back with a vengeance not seen since Die Hard movies were thrilling and not silly. A couple great runs, a couple more lucky bounces, and always, always a cold blooded finishing strike. It lifts up all Liverpool during the winter, and it just crushed all of Liverpool (as well as Blackpool, Hartepool and Richard Branson's Mansion Pool) this afternoon.
OFF: My smile--Watching him steal a goal from Ghana was dastardly. Hearing him be hailed for it as "a gutsy team play" was stupid. Seeing him feted and hailed as a genius sets my teeth on edge. I don't like to root against people, so Mr. Suarez, while you are undoubtedly talented, I do not like you, not one little bit.

ON: Giorgios Karagounis--The first half substitute came on when Greece was at their lowest ebb. Down to 10 men, having lost top striker Konstantinos Mitroglou to injury, the old salt Karagounis came through with serious defense on Japan's top talent Keisuke Honda. With Honda limited to free kicks, the Greeks stayed in the match all the way to their bloodless draw.
OFF: Japanese Finishing--Seriously Japan? Seriously? The Greeks were down to 10 men. Their defense was exposed hither and yon by Colombia, and while you're not as impressive as they are to not get anything for an entire hour worth of chance after chance against a backup can only miss so many golden chances before you and your lead footed finishing get exposed.

Mini celebrated her first right prediction today...namely that England would be full of stress but rejuvenated by a couple strong runs down the park. Of course, she didn't say that rejuvenation would lead to a let's call it good. How she fares tomorrow with Switzerland and France set to square off for the marbles of Group E, we shall see.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches Seventeen-Nineteen

We're starting to see teams drop off the map, getting ready for the inevitable Happy Trails post at the end of this round, the plus side is it makes recapping who is up and who is down a heckuva lot easier.

ON: Mario Mandzukic--Clearly the Bayern Munich man knew what he was doing, setting up one goal, scoring two more, and generally being the ultimate thorn in the side of Cameroon. Croatia's nowhere near their 1998 peak, but Mandzukic is rapidly inserting himself alongside Madrid's Modric as a man worth watching at all times.
OFF: Alex Song--Meanwhile Barca's buddy Alex Song has joined the ranks of infamy with his cousin Rigobert (red carded in two consecutive world cups) and Portugal's Pepe for some of the most boneheaded play on the world's biggest stage. Between a mock strike before the cup, a thanks-refs-for-making-it-closer-than-it-should-have-been game against Mexico and the disaster in Manaus, Song may just be the most convenient scape goat...but still...if it walks like a goat and bleats like a goat...

ON: Gary Medel--Sure we named him our Hip-Star of Chile's team and touted them to break through to the second round, and that may account for a lot of why we keep plugging him here, but, c'mon, be honest, the man was a maniac in the back against La Furia Roja, shutting down as much as captain/keeper Bravo and displaying the tenacity that has made him beloved in Cardiff.
OFF: Vicente Del Bosque--The mastermind of the past 3 Championships seems to be all out of brain cells. Nothing he tries works. Nothing he draws up comes true. No substitute provides a spark, and the team that had the whole world quaking in their boots has been exposed like a Bat Boy in the Weekly World News. Sorry Boss.

ON: Robben & Robin--If ever there was a Dutch superhero duo it might just be Robin^2. They've got style, they've got panache and they've got just the right touch to make opponents dread getting up in the morning. Of course, the history of World Cups is littered with teams who made two good, temper those hopes everyone.
OFF: Common Wisdom--Australia stinks. Really, really stinks. They'll be lucky to smell the goal. That's the sense that common wisdom had of the Socceroos before the cup began, and sure, they still don't have a point to their name, but if you had to face a team right now with all your lunch money on the line would you rather face Austrlia or Spain? too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches Fifteen-Seventeen

Now that every team has played at least one match we have a much better sense of who's on target and who's off, so in addition to our daily update of major themes and observations we have some slightly revised predictions to start off the second set of matches

ON: Algeria's Defense--The name of the game for upset minded sides at this cup has been to frustrate the big boys with sterling defense and capitalize on lapses in judgement. It worked for Costa Rica, it worked for Iran, and it nearly worked for Algeria. Perhaps the word will get out in the next round (assuming World Cup managers regularly read one of the least popular blogs in the whole internet), but perhaps my predicted Algerian upset draw against Russia is still in the cards.
OFF: Belgium Haters--Should you be in the camp who first thought Belgium was dangerous and then scoffed that they were suddenly overhyped, you can chuck the self-righteousness and come back to the pack. Marc Wilmots made solid half-time adjustments and Eden Hazard and Kevin DeBruyne never faltered despite 75 aggravating minutes. Sorry Hipsters.

ON: Son Heung-Min--The Bundesliga Wunderkind was by far the most dangerous man in the Warriors' attack, even though he didn't notch the goal, if he can get some space and some kind of service in the box, Korea's one goal may well turn into more.
OFF: Igor Akinfeev--My supposed "star" for Russia looked anything but, bobbling, bumbling and finally ceding a goal to the howls and despair of fans from the desolate wastes of Siberia to the desolate wastes of Vladmir Putin's heart. The complex, shifting Russian defense looked solid and unnerving for Korea, but if Akinfeev can't find his form it won't matter.

ON: Guillermo Ochoa--Not to let rival American keeper Tim Howard keep all the glory for himself, Ochoa grabbed both the ball and his moment with both hands. Having withstood a lousy patch of weather and questionable refereeing and now everything Brazil can fire at them, reports of El Tri's death are greatly exaggerated.
OFF: Long Range Shots--Mexico made their best efforts from distance, continuing a trend that has permeated a ton of matches in the recent days. Players feel like they can control the Brazuca ball better than most other recent World Cup balls, and the pile of goals confirms their assessment. But for every rocket goal there's a solid thirty high, wide and not particularly handsome.

And as promised some revised predictions

Before the Cup: I thought Holland was cooked
Now? If they can handle Chile (and after utterly neutering Spain, they can...) They'll avoid Brazil and be in the catbird's seat for the second round.

Before the Cup: I was sold on this tournament as Lionel Messi's coronation as a champion (complete with Semifinal/Final berth).
Now? Utterly lack luster support from his running mates and a combination of on form Vincent Enyema, tactically wise Iran and motivated Bosnia means that they may just scuffle rather than sail into the second round...where Ecuador, Switzerland and France all looked better.

Before the Cup: I thought all the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn't help America survive
Now? Between the tenacious defending against the Ghanaian onslaught and the Portugese plug-ugliness, I'm actively working to tamp down my promises though.

Our partners at MacKenzie LowBudget Sports will continue their coverage, as pet pundits shift from Sidney the Dog to Mini the Cat...will she forsee four consecutive hours of Cristiano Ronaldo licking himself? We shall see...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches Twelve-Fourteen

America's fixation on two of the premier matches in the group stage made this a day to circle on the calendar But know that the day is past, it's worth reflecting on exactly how things panned out, both for the good and the bad.

ON: Thomas Muller--The first (official hat trick) of the cup came against an unlikely rival, but the German execution did what it has always been designed to do--destroy anything that gets in its way. Even one of the top 5 teams in the world.
OFF: Pepe--Stupidity, thy name is Pepe. Sure Muller's dive to the ground in supposed "eye-gouge" agony was frustrating, but harassing, intimidating and finally headbutting solves absolutely nothing If there's one consolation, it's that all the mockery of his moronic decision may push young players to never, under any circumstances imitate him.

ON: Carlos Quieroz--The Portugese mastermind had a clear cut strategy, distract and frustrate the Nigerian attack at every turn, stack players in the box until there's no way through and make the most of a little mistake. Holding on to that strategy in the face of the Super Eagles early gains served Team Melli very well. And while I think they could well have grabbed a win a little more focus in building out of the midfield, a point for a team widely critiqued as the worst in the field is awfully promising.
OFF: Stephen Keshi--The first African manager to take his home nation to a world cup (beating Ghana's James Appiah by 3 hours) did himself no favors by refusing to alter strategy in the face of quality defense. When attacking up the middle didn't work, he had defenders boom the ball...down the middle...and then do it again...and again...One of the ugliest performances of the cup so far, bodes ill for the next matches.

ON: Tim Howard--TIMMY! was the saving grace of a spotty American back field tonight. Every time the final four ceded an inch of space, a thunderous cross or shot was rocketing into the box. Time after time, Timbo saved the day. Sure Dede Ayew equalized (courtesy of a brilliant Gyan back heel), but most other keepers at the cup would have folded long before that moment. There are questions about the American defense...but not the man between the posts.
OFF: Ghana's Mojo--I've travelled to Ghana a couple times now. I take pride in speaking a local dialect, and know that my back up World Cup squad is most definitely the Black Stars. I also know that Ghana believes in a certain kind of swagger, a particular form of magic, and they use it to their advantage to never ever play intimidated in a match. It threw off the last two American squads who underestimated the rival...but it ran out today. Whether or not it comes back in time for Germany is a major question.

Tomorrow I go back to work with a day long teacher training. So Belgium/Algeria and Brazil/Mexico may not hit my radar. Sill and all, I'll be glad to catch up as soon as I can.

Monday, June 16, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches Nine-Eleven

It was a great way to spend father's day, a bowl of Cheeto's in one hand, a Sella Artois in the other and the sight of futbol, glorious futbol on the tele. Here's the big themes from a wonderful Sunday in the Park.

ON: Swiss Grit--Record setting as it was, the stoppage time goal was a great bit of luck for Switzerland, stealing a win from the jaws of defeat, and announcing that they will not be the poster child for stupid FIFA rankings everyone assumes they will.
OFF: Ecuadorian Defense--That final goal that has the internet raving, it was definitely a stroke of skill, but also a stroke of luck that Ecuador, on missing their chance looked so lackadaisical and foolish in challenges aimed to stop the attack, but not following through with the action to actually grab the draw. They'll need a result against France for any shot at the knockout rounds, and they can't defend like that (witness what happened to Honduras).

ON: Karim Benzema--The frenchman has a legitimate case to claim a hat trick (FIFA rules would suggest that the deflection off the keeper doesn't become an own goal since it rebounded off the post). He was THE Frenchman on the pitch, and looked every bit a world beater.
OFF: Wilson Palacios--Speaking of beater's, the Honduran midfielder seems to have some sort of axe to grind with Paul Pgoba. Hacking, grabbing and finally shoving him at every opportunity. Beyond looking ugly and unsportsmanlike, it leaves him out of the next match against Ecuador, and deprives Honduras of one of their best creators.

ON: Lionel Messi--The Atomic Flea made one of the most beautiful, gif-able, twitter-breaking able runs of this or any cup. Making opponents look foolish and striking a solid goal to seal the deal for Argentina
OFF: "Lionel Messi"--The idea that Messi can do it alone seems to have slipped into everyone's head, even Messi. No doubt, his great goal was the difference, but it was only the difference because Argentina luckily evaded Bosnian threat after threat. Every member of Albiceleste's attacking squadron seemed fixated on doing it themselves, the result--60 minutes of enervating, blase futbol that should have ended far worse than it did. Come on Leo, don't try to do it all yourself.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why We're "Montanan Hooligans"

I write this blog from Minnesota. I've lived here now for the past three years, and for 9 of the past 13. I haven't had a Montana address since 2001, before I went to college. So why do I cling to the title "Montana Hooligans"?

Because that's where I lived when I first learned to love the game, and that's what led me to love it and live it in the way that I do now. Twenty years ago, I was voraciously reading every word, every syllable of every bit of coverage I could find on the World Cup back in the US, crouched on the floor of my room, learning names like "Higuerta" "Hagi" and "Jorge Campos"

At the time, I was a lousy athlete. I didn't have the depth perception to hit a pitch in Little League. I didn't have the strength or form to make any sort of shot on the basketball court. I wasn't allowed to play football. But I, like so many kids in the early 90's, got shuffled into an AYSO soccer league. I played, never very well, but always enthusiastically and honestly, and I remember clearly, my mother squirming and my father cheering.

My father had always been an athlete himself. He didn't have a choice. Up in Libby, Montana, it was just what young boys did. He played little league, he shot hoops, he ran track, he too was banned from playing football (his father, my grandfather, worried about injuries). As he raised my brothers and I, he strove to  teach us well, and sought out games and events he knew that he knew we could do too. Matt & Simon picked up a basketball, I went out on distance runs. He could do that with us. He loved doing that with us.

So when soccer came along, I took it as a given that he would play with us. Sure enough, without ever planning it he was out on the lawn, helping us with foot traps, complimenting our passing, setting up header practices. He was always the imposing figure, towering above us tykes (he still has a couple inches on all of us), broad chested, and extremely, eternally, passionate.

When the World Cup rolled around, he sat with us, bowls of chips and grilled hot dogs on our plates, bellowing about dives and passes, service and serious fouls. He emphasized how honest you have to be, how fair and just, how giving to your teammates. He seemed to know it all, and my brothers and I followed his words, playing (even in kiddy leagues) with an eye to pass, and a commitment to integrity.

My brothers were wingers, I was a sweeper but again...not a very good one. My clearest memory of playing was in an AYSO championship game for 12 year olds, misjudging an opponent's lob pass that bounced into a divot in our field (Montana parks...never exactly perfectly maintained) over my head and let the rivals back in the match. Afterwards, I owned the moment--apologizing to teammates and coaches; nobody really cared (we won--and we were eleven--after all), but I was proud of playing honestly.

I remember too watching my brothers play, both on traveling teams and in high school, and I remember my mother squirming beside me while my father complimented every sound pass and selfless play. And I can never remember any glimpse of fakery in their actions: no dives, no stalling, no shirking responsibility for chippy fouls. Just honest, genuine, play. Play with passion, play with honesty, play our father would be proud of

Thursday afternoon I met my dad in downtown Minneapolis for the opening match. We had burgers and wings, fries and popcorn, and a couple of beers. We oohed at every Neymar run, we shook our heads at Croatia's tentativeness, we were easily the most involved fans in the bar. But during a lull I asked him something I'd been wondering about, "where did you learn the game?"

I guess I expected to find that it was yet another talent he had. Something he'd picked up from friends in college, or that he'd learned while traveling abroad.

So I was a little surprised when he said blithely, "Coaching you guys in Great Falls."


"Yeah. I had no idea what to do. It wasn't on tv. I'd never played it myself. But you boys wanted to play, so I learned it with you."

Father's Day is a time we usually think about how parents nurtured a love in a game they already knew, teaching us something and helping us to improve. When I remember my father, I don't remember learning to be a great athlete (that's still a long way off for me), but I remember learning how to be a man, and how to be a Montanan man, living/playing with passion, living/playing with integrity.

That's why I love my dad, and that's why I still call this the "Montanan Hooligans" website.

3 On/3 Off: Matches Five-Eight

Saturday was a wild and wonderful day of futbol, covering four matches across the mass of Brazil featuring past cup winners, favorites, dark horses, and supposed also rans. Rather than giving an On/Off award for each match, here were the big themes from the day.

ON: Young Defenders--Oscar Duarte and Pablo Armero each struck a marvelous goal, taking their relative inexperience and lack of mainstream exposure and tossing it out the window. Speed, pace and strength served them well, both in shutting down their opponent attacks and in adding a new dimension to their team's attack.
OFF: "Veteran" Defenders--For all the talk that you need a strong veteran presence in the back to ground your squad during the game's premier event, it sure didn't do much to help two of the most veteran lines in the Cup: Greece and Uruguay. The Greeks got picked apart, and the Uruguyans looked first creaky, and then increasingly cranky when they drew a raft of cards to make an even bigger hole than their two goal deficit.

ON: Myth Making of Legends--Running errands, and experiencing life with my wife, I did not let the matches consume my day. But ESPN certainly has their opinions about what happened: "Balotelli Beat England"; "Drogba Distracts Japan"; "Colombia Overcomes the Loss of Falcao" and "Suarez's Absence Leads to Shock Defeat". Basically, if you're a star, you're responsible for everything...good to know, eh?
OFF: Role Players Grabbing Headlines--As a result of the ma-star-bating media, anybody else looking for some credit can just keep right on looking...the attacks of Junior Diaz and Christian Gamboa for Costa Rica...nothing; Claudio Marchiso's first goal for the Azurri...nothing; the Ivorians youthful combo of Wilfried Bony and Gervinho...nothing. Well, that's what we're for I guess.

ON: Loving Futbol--People who actually watched the matches are obviously fans first and critics second, but it was amazing to see the burst of pure love on Twitter for the game: Joel Campbell is suddenly everyone's must have transfer target, Daniel Sturridge has runs that are something out of a smart phone game, we're all watching and ranting and cheering together. That's what we love.
OFF: Hating Referees--After a pretty bad first pair of matches, the referee bashing has (thankfully) taken a back seat to the players, plays, events and actions. The more invisible the men with the whistles get, the better for all of us.

It's Father's Day so stay tuned for a special post on how my father learned to love the game alongside his sons. And also--you know--watch the big matches of the day: Switzerland/Ecuador, France/Honduras, and a great capstone: Argentina/Bosnia. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

3 On/3 Off: Matches Two-Four

Day two of the World Cup saw more highs through beautifully headed goals, and more lows through dubious officiating. We sum it all up in our "3 On/3 Off" Post

ON: Miguel Herrera--We don't know if Miguel Herrera has a twitter account, we don't know if he cares what the world thinks of him (running Mexico and benching Chicharito...probably not). But the man seemed to have every soccer fan on the planet giddy today, as he endured rain and poor refereeing to be a regular source of amusement in an otherwise blase game.
OFF: Wilmer Roldan and Colombian Referees
Not watching the game, I couldn't say for certain, but judging by Twitter's near incessant explosions and vows of violence against them, I would wager that the game was not judged well...bad news for zebras, whistle blowers and FIFA employees everywhere.

ON: Robin Van Persie--the magical strike before half time swung the game's momentum radically and permanently, and Van Persie's moment of glory will likely have repurcussions far beyond a delighted home crowd and obsessive twittersphere.

OFF: Iker Casillas--He came into the match looking to break a World Cup record for most minutes without allowing a goal. He left a broken shell of what he once was...and that's not me being hyperbolic, he really looked utterly lost and woebegone, like the whole backbone of Spanish soccer crumbled into dust in 50 minutes.

ON: Tim Cahill's Legs--Aged though he is, Tim Cahill still has some ups, and he used them to great effect, pulling Australia single handedly back into their game. The Socceroos may be the most overmatched team in the Cup, but Cahill won't let them go down without a fight
OFF: Chile's Beat-Around the Bush Offense--Sure La Roja won, but their dominance in attacking should have yielded a score much closer to Holland's +4 than their paltry +2. The blame for that lies less on Australia's defense (which often looked shaky), and more on Chile's tepid attack, which relied on playing back for set up after set up that went no where.

Today's is overloaded with goodness, kicking off with Colombia/Greece, then Uruguay/Costa Rica, the big show: England/Italy, and wrapping up with Ivory Coast/Japan

Friday, June 13, 2014

Match One: Three On/Three Off

Now that the matches are on like Donkey Kong, we want to keep our analyses and dumb jokes fresh. So every day we'll post a recap of the days events highlighting the positives and negatives on and off the pitch.
He's got the model pout on
On: Neymar-- it's only been one match, but Neymar (the emo haired it boy of Brazilian futbol) was every bit as good as advertised. Darting, dribbling and (yes occasionally) diving. His brace was undeniably earned.
Off: Hulk--I was so amazed at the bulky striker's physique last summer that I was predisposed to see him as a superhuman. Another big match and another poor showing (perpetually a step behind the passes from Neymar, zero creativity on the left side), and I'm ready to shout Avenger's Assemble just to free up a starting spot for someone else.

50% Grabby/50% Flailing
On: Tenacious Croats--I was fairly down on Croatia's chances--I think the travel schedule and the shell shock of a strong Brazilian squad in the first match was going to set them into a tailspin. Their game fighting spirit throughout the match proved me wrong and should serve them well--provided the Fred Flop doesn't psych them out.
Off: Finishing Croats--For all the whining about the now infamous "Fred Flop" Croatia had next to nothing going on offense for most of the game. One good cross turned into an own goal, and other than that they only put pressure on Julio Caesar in the last 20 minutes of the match. Srna and Lovren can stymie a lot of rivals, but they can't stop Samuel Eto'o AND run down the field to hit the winner.

On: British Pound--Clearly Premier League bosses are going in whole hog this transfer window--Rui Costa and Fabergas heading to Chelsea and mutterings that Arsne Wegner is ogling Mario Balotelli like a Bunga Bunga Buddy. The top tier of British squads must want to dethrone La Liga and the Bundesliga pretty badly.
Off: American conspiracy theorizing--I was at first warmed by the knowledge that a local sports talk station devoted a  solid 5 minutes to the opening match on my evening commute, but less heartened when I realized that most of it was being spent on blaming the Japanese official for a bad penalty call. To be sure, it wasn't great, but it was clear throughout the match that anything above the shoulders was getting called (and often carded)--for Lovren to put his hands on Fred's shoulders was risky enough, Fred's acting sealed the deal--but come on American's it's not the Zapruter film, it's the soccer equivalent of framing a curve ball on an ump's generous outside corner.

TODAY: Matches 2-4 Mexico/Cameroon; Spain/Netherlands; Chile/Australia

PSYCHIC PSIDNEY: Check my dog's predictions at; he's 1 for 1 so far.